British Lord Justice Leveson has just issued proposals for regulating the media to prevent scandals or, rather better said, scandalous actions by journalists in that country. This is almost all that the media in London want to talk about and perhaps rightly so as these proposals could affect how they operate.
That sideshow, which ultimately will play out among the press and the politicians, is a little like watching a prime time soap opera whose viewers largely are just those directly affected. But there is another saga playing out that looks a lot like a Shakespearean drama. And this one offers lessons on handling a crisis.
The Leveson Report is a political response to scandals involving the BBC and News International. Neither news organization has dealt well with scandal. But it isn’t necessary to detail these scandals.
The point here is how the BBC made its own situation worse and helped create conditions in which the politicians were obliged to pursue at least some effort to reform and regulate the press. Because in how the BBC aggravated its situation, there are lessons on how to prevent a crisis from becoming a firestorm.
There are actually two scandals at the BBC. First, the news side quashed a story a year ago about accusations that a former BBC presenter had sexually abused young teen-agers for years – but then the organization never informed the police. Second, more recently the news side reported that a noted politician was a pedophile – but unbelievably the story mistakenly focused on the wrong politician.
And, there are actually two blunders in how the BBC handled media coverage of these scandals.
First, it seems that absolutely no one among current and former BBC news staff could stop talking to other news media covering these stories. Here are some of their comments, duly reported elsewhere:
- “News was a law unto themselves. It was a totally independent and separate empire, accountable to no one. There has to be accountability somewhere.”
- “There is a very pronounced cultural gap between people who make programmes and management. They need to close that.”
- “I don’t see a system issue. What I see is two pretty serious aberrations at Newsnight. We have to be very careful in tarnishing the whole of BBC News.”
- “Cuts have impacted hugely on those who make news programmes. We have a lot of output but not enough people to make the programmes. Everyone is seriously overstretched. Management hasn’t taken its share of the cuts. There is a lot of frustration because of this.”
- “It is still over-managed and the management still speak gobbledygook. Any editor, any head of a department spends their lives filling in forms, answering questions about things that are really not necessary using a language that is so arcane. It has gone bonkers at that level.”
You don’t see any comments there about the egregious mistakes and how they could have happened, what can be done to prevent them happening again, because there were almost no such comments.
You do see lots of criticisms of the organization – and what you see here is just a sampling.
It is axiomatic that in a crisis, there is always some person or organization who will attempt to use your crisis for their currency. But what could make your employees into your enemies.
That suggests a discontent so deep that BBC employees who may not have felt they were heard or valued, saw the crisis as an opportunity to articulate their anger and rage at their employer.
Second, it seems that the BBC failed to establish a regular rhythm of communications with employees. Then the BBC failed to communicate to employees how it was handling these crises. Then the BBC failed to communicate to employees its policy about who talks with other media who cover the organization. And finally the BBC failed to communicate to other media that were covering the scandals at the BBC.
What does this mean to you?
Realize that you need to talk even more with your people. Most organizations think they do a good job of communicating to employees. A few years ago, that might have been so. The truth now is that few companies really communicate to the satisfaction of their people. Why? Because everyone understands that there are no secrets anymore. The internet has made it possible for everyone to find out everything about anything. You need to communicate everything to everyone, as much as is possible, to create the level of trust that you need from employees when you really need their help in a tough situation.
Understand that you need to communicate more, and yet less, in a crisis. When your company faces a sudden crisis, you have to talk with your employees otherwise they’ll believe everything they read, hear and see from news media, social media, and other sources. When you face a crisis you need to double and then double again your ordinary cadence of communications to your people. But deliver a small, tight set of messages – again and again and again so employees understand what has happened and what is being done in response. And then when you make it clear to employees the company policy is “one voice” to others including the news media, the level of trust you have created will reduce the chance that your own people will make unseemly comments about the company and its leadership.
When I began to read the comments from current and former BBC employees that were so critical of their organization – and so far beyond the crises at hand – my first thought was that they had no inkling of the damage they were causing the BBC. But then I realized, they knew exactly what they were doing.
Someone will always use your crisis for their gain, but it shouldn’t be your own employees.